Likewise Software: sandwiched between Microsoft and open source

What's it like to be an open source company that's also a Microsoft partner dependent on the Windows world? Not bad,

says Barry Crist, CEO of Likewise Software. The rise of Linux in the data center, and on the desktop (along with the Mac's suddenly chic status) is creating nice fat demand for a tool that can integrate non-Windows operating systems with Microsoft's Active Directory. AD has become the de facto means of executing group policy and authentication/authorization to servers and desktops alike (a situation that suits Microsoft just fine). But when an enterprise wants to include Linux, Unix or Macs in AD, that's not so easy. Last week Likewise caused nods of approval to ripple through the industry when it announced a major upgrade to its software that does just that.

The update, Likewise Open Spring '08, now supports about 110 operating systems, the company says. What's more, Likewise is open source, under GPL v3 (and other licenses), Crist says.

Likewise obviously isn't the only player in this niche (competitor Centrify is another) but there are all kinds of reasons Likewise is a comer to watch. One of the biggest is that next month its software will ship with major Linux offerings including Novell's openSUSE, Red Hat, and, most interesting of all, Canonical's Ubuntu.

Likewise is in an admittedly strange place, wedged between being a Microsoft partner and an open source software developer. For instance, the company does not license anything from Microsoft, though it does work with Samba, Crist says. Note that in December, Samba made big news when it announced a license agreement with Microsoft that gained Samba and some software that works with it, legal access to use Microsoft protocols. Likewise originally launched its first offering in December.

Microsoft has since "opened" many of its Windows and Office protocols, but still expects any company expecting to turn a buck on its software to pay Microsoft a license fee. (It promises the license will be "cheap.")

Likewise is not the only open source company in this spot, but let's emphasize again that the product smoothes the way for companies to use non-Windows boxes. On the server side, Likewise success has been something Microsoft loves. Although Microsoft can claim a greater number of servers out there (over 60%, reports say), Windows is still the relative newcomer to the data center. If enterprises want to use Active Directory for both their Unix and Windows boxes, all the better for Microsoft.

But enterprises have increasingly become interested in Likewise for its ability to integrate Linux (and Mac) desktops into AD. Desktops need to be authenticated and IT departments want them managed under the same AD group policies as the Windows machines. The company says a year ago, 12% of prospective customers were interested in using Likewise for desktops. Today 32% of them are, plus Likewise is now working with three times as many companies. (The actual number of companies is significant, too. Likewise shared its growth numbers with Microsoft Subnet but made us promise not to publish them.)

Plus, Crist says, non-Windows desktops are no longer the poor unwanted relations of the enterprise. "If you look at raw percentage numbers of how many non-Windows desktops are in the enterprise - it's really low. But you can see the number of Macs that have reached a high executive level. And when the Linux desktop comes in, it's usually a high-profile project with a lot of attention going to making it succeed," says Crist.

Truly the MacBook is today's cool toy in the corner office. (Or, as Crist puts it, just notice who is using what laptop in first class next time you fly). And low-cost Linux desktops have become an "in" alternative for shared-terminal kinds of applications. (As one big example, last month the city Tamil Nadu, India, yanked Windows in favor of installing 30,000 Novell SLED desktops in its schools, while also deploying about 1,800 Novell servers. )

With Vista a public relations nightmare and Google Docs coming on strong, Microsoft's long-term control of the desktop is threatened. This explains (but perhaps doesn't excuse) its crazy cold/hot attitude toward open source.

Crist has a unique vantage point. He can see that customers clearly want more choices than Windows. And yet he believes Microsoft's latest loving approach is sincere.

"I think they are letting go of some of the ferocity in how they were competing with open source. They are realizing that happy customers are really in their best interest," he says.

More Microsoft Subnet blog posts:Will XP survive or won’t it?Early ISO vote tally: OOXML accepted Four fabulous giveaways from Microsoft Subnet and Cisco SubnetMicrosoft: We won't sue over OOXML, ever New Chinese antitrust law could affect Microsoft/Yahoo dealAll Microsoft Subnet blog posts

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